Rochester restores SOS funding, nears budget adoption

ROCHESTER — City councilors may have wrapped up their budget amendments Tuesday night, making a variety of cuts and additions that slightly lowered the next year’s proposed operating budget while keeping it under the projected tax cap.

Among Tuesday night’s notable changes was an 8-3 decision to restore $25,000 in funding for SOS Recovery Community Organization.

City Manager Blaine Cox said after the budget workshop he didn’t include the appropriation in his proposed $106.09 million citywide general fund budget because of the ongoing legal battle between the city and SOS in Strafford County Superior Court.

He said he couldn’t elaborate further on the reasoning due to the pending case.

The case involves SOS’ use of First Church Congregational on South Main Street. The parties are still awaiting a ruling on an injunction SOS and FCC requested to block the city from forcing them to undergo an official site plan review.

City Attorney Terence O’Rourke has argued in court filings they should be subject to a review because SOS didn’t receive the proper zoning approvals before it started using space inside the church in 2016. City staff began investigating SOS’ use of FCC and served multiple cease and desist letters last year after a citizen petition lodged various complaints, Cox has said.

Meanwhile, SOS and FCC officials have argued SOS’ nonmedical peer recovery services don’t constitute an unpermitted change in use for the church. They’ve also argued SOS shouldn’t be subject to a site plan review because the services are an extension of the church’s ministry.

City Council didn’t reference the case while voting to restore $25,000 to the budget to level fund SOS. The only comment of any kind came from Ward 2 Councilor Elaine Lauterborn as she motioned to restore the funding.

“The crisis is not over and people looking for recovery assistance and services need… the services provided by SOS,” said Lauterborn.

“I’m hoping the council will be willing to address that (master plan) strategy in this way by level funding SOS,” said Lauterborn.

In addition to Lauterborn, Deputy Mayor Ray Varney and councilors Tom Abbott, Robert Gates, Jeremy Hutchinson, Jim Gray, Sandra Keans, Dave Walker and Ray Varney voted in favor of restoring the $25,000.

Donna Bogan, Geoffrey Hamann and Ralph Torr opposed it.

Pete Lachapelle was absent Tuesday, while Mayor Caroline McCarley abstained because her husband serves in a leadership position at FCC.

SOS tweeted a thank you Tuesday night in response to the approval.

“An enormous thank you to the 8 Rochester City Councilors who voted 8-3 to maintain funding!” SOS tweeted on its official account. “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your support!”

Cox’s original proposed FY20 budget was tax-cap compliant by $14,375.

Other operating budget amendments made Tuesday included the elimination of $18,048 in Rochester Fire Department funding for a new firefighter physicals program and the addition of $33,048 for a new half-time librarian.

A motion to add $90,478 for a new deputy city assessor position failed.

Councilors also tabled a $28,000 request for a new RFD swiftwater rescue boat, delayed by one year a $140,000 capital improvement project for roadwork on Columbus Avenue and Summer Street, and cut $25,000 from the $125,000 councilors recently authorized to be drawn from the separate economic development fund for a wayfinding street sign project

Tuesday’s budget workshop also included the city’s annual budget public hearing, but no members of the public spoke.

Because councilors made it through the entire operating and CIP budgets department by department Tuesday, McCarley said the May 28 budget workshop will be canceled unless councilors inform her within the next couple of days that they’d like to hold it for additional amendments and discussion.

If the May 28 workshop is canceled, the next budget meeting will be the adoption meeting slated for June 4.